The problem with the phrase “vocal gymnastics” – if used as a pan – is that plainly gymnastics are awesome. Their poise, control, grace, swiftness and fluidity – why wouldn’t these be things you’d aspire to in pop, why wouldn’t you expect applause? But these are manifestations of technique*, and pop thought ran aground on technique years ago, setting up a series of straw oppositions to deny it. Technique versus emotion. Technique versus passion. Technique versus excitement. Why not have them all? Mariah could, and sometimes did – if you could do the giddy things she does with her voice on “Emotions”, say, why wouldn’t you?
You need the songs for it, though. The part of Mariah’s success that British critics really couldn’t deal with wasn’t so much the range as the material; a higher concentration of ballads than the average star, and ones which seemed particularly placid, at that. A listen to her ’98 Greatest Hits record persuaded me that (disappointingly perhaps) I still wasn’t down with many Carey slowies. Once the bpm rises she’s enchanting, but at ballad pace most of her singles still sound torpid.
“Without You” may be a slow number, but sticking to the Nilsson blueprint provides enough material for any performer. In fact, Carey is controlled and respectful here, even at the crisis point – her voice bending and fluxing but always reforming before it deliquesces entirely. If – as a wise commenter on the Nilsson thread pointed out in response to my underrating “Without You” – Harry’s melodrama on his take carries double weight because it’s a breadown of an urbane, soft spoken persona, the same thing works for Carey in reverse: we all know how much she could freak out on this record, but she just about doesn’t. She stays devastated but strong, bolstered by her multi-tracked, gospel-tinted backing selves: the record’s best touch.
A good track, then? The truth is, I can’t love it, or even move much beyond admiration. It’s not the song, and it’s certainly not the singing, but I run into the same wall I did when I was writing about the operatic ballads of the 50s – there’s no side to it. “Without You” is monolithically straightforward: it comes from a place of noble and complete seriousness I can’t totally relate to.
*the other thing about gymnastics, of course, is that they are a sport with judges. It’s not fair to blame Whitney or Mariah for the hijacking of their singing style by Reality TV performers – you don’t choose your imitators – but the unrestrained, often glorious showiness of their performances maybe lends itself to benchmarking. But such worries are for later.